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Clinton’s Revolution

The town square of Valdosta, Georgia, a red-clay south Georgia community just above the Florida border, was packed with over five thousand men and women on September 23. Valdosta was a Democratic stronghold throughout the Great Depression, but the voters here began to leave in the 1960s when the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt became, in their eyes, the party of Martin Luther King. Twenty-four years ago, George Wallace, running as the candidate of the American Independent Party, won by an absolute majority in Lowndes County (which includes Valdosta), beating the combined vote cast for Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. In 1988, George Bush crushed Michael Dukakis here, winning 66 percent of the vote.

In the fall of 1992, however, Bill Clinton and Albert Gore attracted a crowd that jammed the plaza in front of City Hall. And most of those waving Clinton-Gore signs were white. While a film crew under the direction of Clinton’s “media consultant,” Frank Greer, made a tape for commercials to be shown in southern states, Clinton, his voice full of sarcasm, ridiculed Bush’s criticism of him. “One day I’m a redneck from a little southern state, the next day I’m an Oxford man. He went to country day schools, a prep school…and to Yale. Where does he get off looking up to me as an Oxford man? He got $300,000 from his daddy to start the family business.”

But what was perhaps most striking about Clinton’s speech is that he claimed credit for changing the “national Democratic Party” in a part of the country where the words “national Democratic Party” are understood as shorthand for a federal government that, during the 1960s and 1970s, promoted both racial integration and policies intended to shift income from the working and lower-middle class to the nonworking welfare poor.

I brought change to the Democratic Party. I challenged the Democratic Party, and we did change the Democratic Party. You read our platform. It says the best social program is a good job and a growing economy, and that is what we stand for. First time in a generation, the Democrats are running on their platform and the Republicans are running away from theirs.

Clinton may have overstated the revolution in his own party, but the 1992 presidential campaign has already produced one clear result: the Republican presidential coalition has been broken. The size of Clinton’s audience in the Valdosta town square was a sign of that. Neither Michael Dukakis nor Walter Mondale (nor George McGovern, nor Hubert Humphrey) would have even tried to hold a rally there.

George Bush could still come from behind to win the election, but the powerful conservative alliance, a virtually all-white coalition that dominated five of six presidential elections during the twenty years from 1968 to 1988, is no longer the driving force in national politics. The GOP is plagued by defections among three of its core constituencies—Reagan Democrats, suburbanites, and the young. The increasingly powerful religious right, in turn, may now become the political special interest group against which Democratic voters will react in the 1990s. The centrist voters who have been estranged from the Democrats by liberal claims on behalf of minorities, homosexuals, and feminists may now be more alienated by rightwing religious leaders, particularly Pat Robertson, who threaten to dominate the GOP.

By supporting Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, white, working-class ethnic groups in the North and Protestant rednecks in the deep South helped to give populist legitimacy to a Republican Party that had long been identified with the well-to-do. Now these groups are abandoning Bush and the GOP, whether in such Deep South towns as Valdosta or in northern communities from Parma, Ohio, to Festus, Missouri. The presence of such voters in the Republican alliance previously helped to counter Democratic claims that the GOP is the party of corporate America and the rich. Door-to-door interviews and polling carefully aimed at these Reagan Democrats have recently shown a surge of support for Bill Clinton and a strong tendency of many of them to return to the Democratic Party. Some of the people who voted for George Wallace in 1968 were part of the hard-hat “silent majority” that voted for Nixon in 1972. They now hold Ronald Reagan in lower esteem than Jesse Jackson.1

The former Reagan Democrats still feel threatened by minorities; they still resent the Democratic programs that created special preferences for blacks, first through busing and then through affirmative-action programs that, in their view, threaten their chances for jobs and promotions. No one should have any illusions that such feelings have diminished. But they are now counterbalanced by the Bush administration’s evident determination to weaken unions and to limit protection for employees on the shop floor, and by the recession that has sharply increased unemployment among bluecollar workers. For white workingclass voters the busing of the 1970s is now less alarming than the danger that the corporations that employ them will be destroyed or broken up, while financial manipulators like Frank Lorenzo, the union-busting former head of the bankrupt Eastern Airlines, walk away with millions of dollars.

Steve Schott, a thirty-five-year-old Teamsters Union member who commutes from Festus, Missouri to work at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis, described to me why he felt his life was increasingly constricted, his autonomy diminished: the union members, he said, “get pushed on and there is nothing we can do. We just have to take it. You can’t go someplace else, you don’t have that choice. I make good wages, I don’t have that much to complain about. But they [management] kicked our ass. If you don’t like it, walk.” In a working-class bungalow suburb of St. Louis, Lillian Bitter, a sixty-six-year-old married woman who works as a clerk in a large store, said that, in 1988,

I thought Reagan had done a good job, and Bush would continue things. Now, I think Reagan started the whole thing, he escalated everything. He could have done more for the people, it took a long time to catch on. … After what Bush has done to the working people—I have a son who is unemployed. He’s going to school, but he just got laid off from a warehouse job.

During the 1980s, Bill Witkowsky, a forty-one-year-old production worker who worked at Fruehauf, a trailer truck manufacturer in Chicago, voted for Reagan and Bush. But the decade was increasingly brutal to Witkowsky. The Fruehauf company “went through a buyout in ‘85, and they bought back the buyout, and they went too far in debt, they ended selling everything off. And then the business and the economy went and they kept trimming and trimming”—until Witkowsky was fired. He is now, he says, “trying my hand at real estate,” and plans to vote for Clinton. “Nobody is going to tell me what my family values are. I want them to show me the economy. If they get people back to work, family values go up. If people aren’t working, it hurts the family.”

Discontent with Bush is running deep in working-class neighborhoods in Illinois, Missouri, and other states, and even voters who were openly and explicitly drawn to the GOP because of its racial policies are having second thoughts. Sixty-eight-year-old Joseph Piscopo, who has retired from his job running a machine at Royal Crown Cola and lives near Midway Airport in Chicago, said that in the 1980s he “took a chance and voted Republican. Jesse Jackson was starting to pick up steam back then, and rather than put a black in there, I’ll vote Republican anytime.” Piscopo does not conceal his feelings about blacks:

I’ve worked with niggers all my life and they are nothing but a prejudiced bunch of people. They are the ones that start all the things, and they have to find someone to blame, so that is why they blame the whites, they will stick it to the white man any time they can.

This year Piscopo says of Clinton, “I like his ideas, and Bush hasn’t done a damn thing. Twelve years of that bullshit has been enough, I’m switching, that’s it.”

While the “Reagan Democrats,” the group that has been central to the winning Republican strategy of recent years, are returning to the Democratic Party, a new group is emerging in the politics of 1992. Its members could be called Clinton Republicans, but that is not a label they use. They are suburban, middle-class Republicans who feel that “they have not left their party, their party has left them,” to reverse the slogan Reagan formerly used to appeal to Democratic voters. Glen Fitten, a twenty-six-year-old musician who lives in West Orange, New Jersey, took part in a discussion among suburban New Jersey Republicans organized by the Washington Post. He was disturbed by Pat Buchanan’s speech at the Republican Convention and particularly by its “tone, his putting down of groups like homosexual groups and other people like the other groups who are not part of the mainstream.”

I registered myself as a Republican. I didn’t know about politics, I was quite young. I just did it because my folks were Republicans, no other reason, really, that’s why I did it. But being around all their friends who are Republicans, some of my relatives, I never got that negativity from them. They always taught me “yeah, you are registered Republican but always go by the issue, not necessarily by your party every time if you don’t feel strongly about that.” I know I can’t really pinpoint exactly in his speech which really turned me off or which made me really swayed to voting Democrat, it was just the basic negative tone of that. I found it really scary.

Joan Sutch, a forty-nine-year-old New Jersey Republican, who had until recently managed a real estate firm, said:

I’ve lost all respect for Bush based on the fact that he is a “don’t worry, be happy” President. He has no solutions at this point, and we are in, I think, a serious economic crisis. My children are twenty-two and twenty-four, boys; one is making minimum wage in Dallas and is not able to live on it, can’t find a job. There are no jobs to speak of in Dallas. The other boy is in Tulsa and both of these oil cities have suffered. And he makes a living wage but to do so he works seventy-two hours a week.

A similar defection of relatively well-off suburbanites from the Republican coalition can be seen on the West Coast as well. In 1988, Bush barely carried California, by a margin of 352,684 votes out of 9.9 million cast. No county in the state contributed more to that margin than the famously conservative Orange County, where Bush beat Dukakis by 586,230 to 269,013—Bush’s 317,217 vote margin over Dukakis being substantially larger than Dukakis’s total vote. This year, according to polls taken by the Los Angeles Times, Bush and Clinton are virtually tied in Orange County. Together with the defection of Reagan Democrats, these losses suggest that two pillars of the Republican coalition are crumbling, at least for the moment.

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    For example, a survey published in early August by Michigan Researchers Associates of 1,500 Reagan Democrats in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois found that 62.8 percent viewed Ronald Reagan unfavorably while 54.5 percent had an unfavorable view of Jesse Jackson.

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